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    Discover Music in Newark

    Xian Zhang | NJSO

    When the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra announced Chinese-American conductor Xian Zhang as its next music director in November, amid the press and audience attention the appointment received, one New Jersey paper unearthed the conductor’s inspiring origin story.
    The Bergen Record wrote: “When Xian Zhang, newly appointed conductor of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, takes up the baton for her four-year term in September, she will bring a résumé matched by few in her field. And a back story matched by no one.

    Xian-Zhang

    “Her childhood experiences, as a victim of China’s Cultural Revolution, add a personal urgency to the mission, common to all symphony conductors, of keeping the music alive for new generations … Born in Dandong, Liaoning province, Zhang was three years old in 1976 – at the tail end of the Mao Zedong’s infamous 10-year Cultural Revolution that swept though China like a cyclone, destroying everything ‘bourgeois’ and ‘Western’ in its path. Both of her parents had their careers disrupted or destroyed. ‘My mom was in music school; she had to stop school,’ Zhang says. ‘The school was closing down. She was sent to a farm to work.’

    “Her father had been a musical instrument maker; that ceased with the revolution. But he kept his skill set. And when his daughter was 3, he built her a present.
    “‘He wanted to buy me a piano, but it was nowhere to be found,’ she recalled. ‘All the instruments were destroyed in the revolution. He knew a friend who ... had the old parts nobody used anymore. He went there to buy them, the hammers and keys. All those parts of the piano, the little ones. He got home and he assembled it, he built the wooden shell to put everything together. That was the first piano I ever played.’”

    From her beginnings at that small, handmade piano in Dandong, Zhang built her way to a conducting career—as The Bergen Record says—matched by no one. She made her professional debut conducting The Marriage of Figaro at the Central Opera House in Beijing at the age of 20. She trained at Beijing’s Central Conservatory, earning both Bachelor and Master of Music degrees, and she served one year on its conducting faculty before moving to the United States in 1998. She was appointed the New York Philharmonic’s Assistant Conductor in 2002, subsequently becoming their Associate Conductor and the first holder of the Arturo Toscanini Chair.
    Xian-Zhang

    Zhang impressed both the orchestra and The New York Times: “Her incisive gestures elicit vivid performances from musicians who have seen it all, and her passionate musicality reflects the boundless energy that has propelled her improbable journey from a small town in China to the Philharmonic, where, as associate conductor, she is a rising star.”
    Her star continued to rise—she became Music Director of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi in September 2009, and she began to guest conduct the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra to critical praise.

    In a rave review of her latest guest appearance in New Jersey, The Star-Ledger praised Zhang’s artistry and relationship with the NJSO, writing: “Zhang once again proved a thrilling leader who has already established a strong rapport with the orchestra. The program showed her interacting with the orchestra in a variety of contexts … In each one, her innate musicality and ability to communicate intention with clarity invested every gesture. Nothing seemed extraneous or glossed over, even as her whole body seemed to contract and release with explosive energy.”

    “What can [hold an audience] is the way that Zhang infuses scores with vitality and detail and the highly engaged playing of the NJSO,” the paper continued.
    In September 2016, Zhang will become the first female conductor to have a titled role with a BBC orchestra when she takes on the position of Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC National Orchestra & Chorus of Wales. 

    Xian-Zhang

    Zhang officially begins her tenure as the NJSO’s 14th music director in the fall (WQXR placed her impending arrival in New Jersey in the top two of its classical stories to watch in 2016).
    But New Jersey audiences don’t have to wait that long to see the conductor The Asbury Park Press deems “absurdly talented” and “perfect for the role”—she returns to the Garden State this month for a program of Tchaikovsky (her personal favorite) and Barber.

    Zhang conducts NJSO performances on Thursday, April 7, at 1:30 pm and Friday, April 8, at 8 pm at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. (The Orchestra also performs the program on Saturday, April 9, at 8 pm at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank and Sunday, April 10, at 3 pm at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown.)

    “I’m very excited for these concerts for many reasons,” Zhang says. “These are my first concerts after the announcement, and Tchaikovsky is one of my favorite composers. This program is very passionate, emotional and lyrical. I think melodies are important, and this program is filled with beautiful romantic ones.”

    About the April 7 and 8 concerts, in Xian’s words:
    “Tchaikovsky wrote Marche Slave to celebrate the Russians helping the Serbians in the war at the time, just one year before he wrote the Fourth Symphony. He used two Serbian folk songs at the beginning of the piece. There is a great moment at the end with brass playing the ‘God Save the Tsar’ theme,” she says.

    Xian-Zhang

    “Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony features brass, and I believe the NJSO has a fantastic brass section. The second movement has one of the most famous oboe solos in all literature, and I think you will be really touched. In the third movement, you will see the string players put down their bows like they’ve stopped playing, but they will be playing pizzicato for a very long section, which is rare.

    “I believe Barber’s Violin Concerto is the greatest American concerto. It’s so romantic—on an emotional level, it matches really well to the sensibility and the passion of Tchaikovsky.”

     


    Watch videos, learn more and read press and audience reaction at NJSO.
    For concert information and to purchase tickets, visit here.

    Photo Credit: Benjamin Ealovega